Russell Colley created the spacesuits worn by the Project Mercury astronauts, including fitting Alan B. Shepard Jr. for his historic ride as America's first man in space on May 5, 1961.
Russell Colley was a mechanical engineer and inventor who made major contributions to the American aircraft and aerospace industries.
Colley was born in 1899 in Stoneham, Massachusetts. As a young man, Colley displayed excellent mechanical skills. As he entered adulthood, he told his parents that he desired to design women's clothing. His parents refused to let Colley enter that business and persuaded him to enroll at the Wentworth Institute of Mechanical Engineering.
In 1928, Colley accepted a position with the B.F. Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio, as a mechanical engineer. While working with this company, Colley designed a pressurized flight suit for pilot Wiley Post. Post was famous for setting altitude records in his airplane. To fly even higher, he needed a suit that was pressurized so that he would not pass out from the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. Colley designed the suit for Post. The two men went to Colley's home, where the scientist would use his wife's sewing machine to alter Post's suit. Colley's suit included three layers. The innermost layer consisted of long underwear. The middle layer was a rubberized air pressure bladder, and the outer layer was made of rubberized parachute fabric on a frame with arm and leg joints. Attached to the suit were rubber boots, pigskin gloves, and a diver's helmet with a removable faceplate. Post flew in this suit for the first time on September 5, 1935. He reached an altitude of forty thousand feet. Post eventually reached forty-seven thousand feet while wearing the suit.
Colley later left the B.F. Goodrich Company to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Colley designed the space suits used by the Mercury astronauts. He also developed the gloves that John Glenn used on his orbital flight. To thank Colley for his contribution, NASA awarded him its Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1994.
Over the course of his career, Colley received sixty-five patents. Retiring from NASA, he returned to northeastern Ohio, where he became a watercolor painter and jewelry designer. Russell Colley died on February 4, 1996, in Springfield, Ohio.